The mistakes that turned New York into an epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic

Alexander Nazaryan
National Correspondent

The threat of the coronavirus was looming over New York City, but Mayor Bill de Blasio was not especially worried. “I’m encouraging New Yorkers to go on with your lives + get out on the town despite Coronavirus,” he tweeted on March 2. There was an Italian film playing at Lincoln Center. He urged people to see it.

The day before, New York City had confirmed its first coronavirus case. At the same time, the virus appeared to be taking devastating hold in Washington state and California, in what many public health officials were predicting was an ominous sign of things to come. 

Less than a month later, New York City is the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, with more than 20,000 cases and over 280 deaths. In part that’s because New Yorkers were caught between de Blasio’s indecision and President Trump’s inattention. It was left to Gov. Andrew Cuomo to prod both men into taking the outbreak in New York more seriously than they previously had.

De Blasio’s less-than-coherent response has disappointed even his fellow progressives. “Out of the three of them, unfortunately, he has been the worst in taking decisive action,” New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams says of de Blasio. In a recent conversation with Yahoo News, he struggled to find words to describe the inadequacy of Trump’s response, but was hardly more generous to de Blasio, with whom he shares a near-identical political outlook. 

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio at City Hall on March 17. (Jeenah Moon/Reuters)

Freddi Goldstein, a spokeswoman for City Hall, countered such claims in an email to Yahoo News. “It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and have an opinion,” she said in response to criticisms by Williams and others who spoke to Yahoo News for this article. “The mayor carries the responsibility of 8.6 million New Yorkers. He must think about their safety, their livelihood, their education. Every decision he has made has been deliberate and thoughtful. That’s what you need in a crisis.”

Critics of the mayor’s performance insist that a surplus of confidence and a deficit of focus — a combination eerily similar to the one that has plagued the White House — kept de Blasio from taking the steps necessary to protect his citizens. Wanting to show that they would not be cowed by the outbreak, his public health officials missed precious weeks in which preparations and precautions could have saved lives. On Feb. 9, for example, the city’s health commissioner, Dr. Oxiris Barbot, urged people to attend a Lunar New Year celebration in Chinatown, telling them not to “change any plans due to misinformation.”

By then, the virus — which causes a lower respiratory disease called COVID-19 — was without doubt spreading through the city, helped along by mass gatherings like the Lunar New Year festivities. These kinds of easily avoided mistakes mark the city’s response and explain in part why, today, New York City is the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.

“It’s been tough to watch,” Williams says of de Blasio, who was the city’s public advocate before becoming mayor in 2014. Williams says that while Cuomo has been far from perfect, the governor has exerted a “calming” presence while pulling the proper levers of state bureaucracy and wresting important concessions from Trump.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on March 2. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

Williams argues that de Blasio had every warning sign necessary to prepare, given that the coronavirus’s appearance in the five boroughs was all but inevitable. “We’ve known that for weeks,” an audibly frustrated Williams told Yahoo News. 

Others in the city appear to share that view.

“We were always going to be high-risk,” says one member of the City Council who would speak frankly only if granted anonymity. But like many others, he says that the mayor has only made things worse. 

De Blasio’s response has been in some cases similar to Trump’s, rife with divisive political rhetoric and a sustained deflection of responsibility. Like the president, he has continued to engage in feuds even as the outbreak rages. After a press report suggested that officers of the New York City Police Department did not have enough respirator masks, de Blasio criticized the report as “misinformation,” adding a Trumpian “NOT TRUE” for good measure. That promptly led to a Twitter fight with the police officers’ union. Since then, more than 200 officers have fallen ill with COVID-19.

In recent days, de Blasio’s pained visage has been a regular presence on MSNBC and CNN, where he has issued a series of relentlessly apocalyptic warnings about the ravages the coronavirus would inflict on his city. Only months ago, he was on a quixotic quest to win the Democratic nomination for president, which he hoped to do by presenting New York’s rise to the status of global metropolis as his own achievement. 

“He’s never had an interest in the nuts and bolts of governing,” the council member says, adding that de Blasio remains intent on becoming a “national progressive warrior” and has come to regard the coronavirus as a fresh opportunity to do so.

Despite his near-daily appearances on cable news, however, de Blasio does not appear to have burnished his reputation the way predecessor Rudy Giuliani did after 9/11, when he became known as “America’s Mayor.” If the coronavirus has shattered Trump’s image as a managerial genius, it has hardly been much kinder to de Blasio, instead revealing shortcomings that have long been obvious to New York political observers. 

New York Gov. George Pataki, left, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Sen. Hillary Clinton near the World Trade Center the day after 9/11. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)

“De Blasio’s response is a lot like Trump’s,” says Bradley Tusk, a top adviser to Michael Bloomberg, whom de Blasio replaced in City Hall. Tusk charges de Blasio with a “willful disdain for health experts, slowness to realize what was happening, lack of attention to details, inability to accept personal responsibility and challenges making decisions. It’s the epitome of poor leadership.”

But some have praised de Blasio’s leadership, explaining that the combination of the city’s size and Washington’s muddled response has made the mayor’s task nearly impossible. “In all my years of working in and around government, I have never seen a crisis like this where the federal government has been in absentia,” says former de Blasio adviser Peter Ragone.

Ragone says de Blasio has been “impressive” in his handling of the pandemic. “I think people have to understand the sheer scale of what he is managing right now,” adds Ragone, who left City Hall in 2015 and returned to San Francisco. “In fact, there is probably no other public official with a more challenging job,” he says, enumerating some of the challenges facing de Blasio: a school system of more than a million children, the nation’s largest hospital system, a police force that is effectively a small army, three of the world’s busiest airports. 

Though critics may outnumber them, there are fans of de Blasio’s handling of the pandemic among members of the public as well, including outside his base of unionists and progressives. “I don’t agree with you on many issues, and some of the optics of your administration have been awful,” investor and CNBC pundit Guy Adami tweeted at de Blasio. Despite those reservations, Adami praised the mayor for “providing leadership during a time of historic uncertainty and apprehension.”

That leadership was slow to arrive, however.

A makeshift morgue outside Bellevue Hospital in New York on Wednesday. (Bryan R. Smith/AFP via Getty Images)

Even as the scope of the epidemic grew within the confines of the city, de Blasio appeared optimistic about New York’s chances of evading a full-blown epidemic. On March 7, he and his wife, Chirlane McCray, held a social-justice-themed open house at Gracie Mansion, the mayoral residence, whose publicly accessible areas can easily become uncomfortably cramped with only a few dozen people present.

Goldstein, the mayoral spokesperson, said that 320 people attended the open house. She added that Gracie Mansion has since been closed for public tours and events.

Four days later, de Blasio advised people to frequent the city’s restaurants. 

“If you’re not sick, you should be going about your life,” he counseled as the number of cases nationwide reached 1,000. The virus was clearly moving east, with a troubling cluster of cases in New Rochelle, a suburb just north of the Bronx.

De Blasio’s tone changed sharply the following day, March 12. Just hours before Trump delivered an Oval Office address on the coronavirus, de Blasio declared a state of emergency, warning that the epidemic would “get a lot worse before it gets better.” 

But the scope of his own preparations remained unclear. The city had only recently received an order of N95 respirators, after bungling an attempt to order the masks in February. (“Our contracted vendors couldn’t fill the orders as global demand skyrocketed,” Goldstein explained. “Legally, an emergency declaration was necessary for us to be able to work outside of our regular vendors.”)

Nor was de Blasio ready to announce the kinds of lockdown measures that had already shown success in parts of China and elsewhere.

He admitted, for example, that New York’s municipal workforce of more than 300,000 people did not have a work-from-home plan in place. “You know, I don’t think telecommuting is the ideal,” the mayor said.

Both de Blasio and the city’s hospital commissioner, Dr. Mitchell Katz, made repeated assurances that even if the coronavirus hit the city, its 11 public hospitals would be ready for a sharp, sudden influx of patients needing acute respiratory care.

“We could immediately put together 1,200 beds,” the mayor said confidently during a March 13 briefing. He was seconded by Katz, who said that New York “is very lucky in that we are a hospital, health center mecca.” A reporter then asked if 1,200 beds would be enough, given the city’s population of 8.6 million.

De Blasio said that beds and resources could be diverted from elsewhere. “You could fall back and get deeper and deeper and open up more and more,” he assured.

Goldstein disputed that de Blasio did not take the crisis seriously at first. “The mayor has been on top of this crisis since day 1,” she told Yahoo News. “In fact, he was one of the first elected officials to speak publicly on this, as far back as January.” She added that there “was never a time the mayor was telling people to live their lives where he wasn’t simultaneously instructing them to watch for symptoms and take any and all signs of the virus seriously.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, right. (MediaPunch/IPX via AP)

She also said that the virus has undergone multiple phases in New York, much as it has elsewhere, and that each phase has necessitated a different response.

But that response has frequently been contradictory. Katz was saying as late as the end of last week that public hospitals “have what they need to take care of people.” That was in direct contravention with what de Blasio was saying at around the same time: “We literally have people in China shopping for ventilators.”

De Blasio has blamed a negligent Trump administration for not providing the city with sufficient supplies to test for and treat the coronavirus. He has gone as far as accusing the president last Friday of a “willful betrayal of New York City,” even as he continued to plead with Trump for help.

The exceptionally sensitive president has reacted in predictable fashion. “I'm not dealing with him,” Trump said of de Blasio last week, saying that he would work with Cuomo instead. 

In response to questions from Yahoo News, the White House dismissed de Blasio’s criticism, noting that Trump — unlike de Blasio — is a city native. “It’s where he grew up and he loves New York,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said. He added that the Trump administration was “working in close partnership with state and local officials across the Empire State.” 

(De Blasio spoke to Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, and they appear to have had additional conversations since. Goldstein says that de Blasio “has gone into great detail on the state of our hospitals. He has been explicit in his request for more supplies, including ventilators,” and that he has requested that the military help manage the worsening situation in the city.)

There was little that de Blasio — or any mayor, for that matter — could have done to keep the coronavirus out entirely. The city has millions of residents to contend with, and hundreds of thousands of tourists and suburban commuters swelling its ranks daily. Until recently, John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens had three direct flights per week to Wuhan, the Chinese city where the coronavirus originated.

Critics say that despite those logistical challenges, de Blasio could have done more. Much as Trump has chafed at restrictive measures prescribed by his administration, so did de Blasio resist shutting down critical parts of the city until it was too late. “It doesn’t entirely fit to cancel big events,” de Blasio said on March 9 of the St. Patrick’s Day parade, which for more than two centuries has been an event central to the life of the city. Two days later, Cuomo postponed the historic festivities, taking charge as he often would in the days and weeks to come.

De Blasio also resisted taking drastic measures like shutting down schools, leading to what the New York Times described as fierce disputes with his own staffers, who wanted him to take more aggressive action. He has finally closed the schools, and taken other actions of similar magnitude, but without the happy warrior disposition New Yorkers generally expect from their leaders.

“The mayor should have closed schools much earlier,” said Williams, the public advocate. And, he added, de Blasio should have restricted movement throughout the city sooner as well.

“There's a human cost to that,” Williams said of de Blasio’s hesitation.

The mayor even struggled with seemingly simple decisions like closing playgrounds, something he steadfastly refused to do, even as he admitted they are rarely subject to cleaning. New York City is finally addressing that situation, as well as the one in crowded parks, but only after prodding from Cuomo.

And then, of course, there is de Blasio’s gym routine.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2016. (Bryan Smith/ZUMA Wire)

For nearly seven years, de Blasio had insisted on traveling with a fleet of sport utility vehicles from Gracie Mansion on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to Park Slope, Brooklyn, so that he could exercise at the same gym he’d used before he became mayor in 2014. The trip is 12 miles each way and usually means he does not begin his workday until nearly the lunch hour. Still, de Blasio defended his routine as if it were a sacred right.

And that remained true as the coronavirus hit New York City. De Blasio journeyed to Brooklyn this past Monday, even as he prepared to close outright or restrict access to gyms and other venues around the city. He spent two hours there before returning to Manhattan in the early afternoon to begin what could be the most consequential week for his city since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“I got no exercise whatsoever during the weekend,” de Blasio said at a press conference later that day. “I was in this building a huge percentage of the time. I need exercise to be able to stay healthy.”

He then summoned Katz, of the city’s hospital system, to bolster his point — and, inadvertently, to make an already strange moment even stranger. “I’m a practicing doctor,” an uneasy-looking Katz said. “I support the mayor’s decision to get exercise today.”

In the meantime, de Blasio has also had to watch as his rival in Albany has been embraced by the very media and political establishment whose adulation has consistently eluded the mayor. The Associated Press branded the governor the “Democratic counter to Trump,” a title that de Blasio has desperately sought. 

Cuomo seems to instinctively grasp what people need. When a local reporter confessed to having a crush on the governor during one of his press conferences, he called her to chat

The governor’s charmingly-crotchety-uncle explanation of self-quarantine went viral, thanks to comedian Samantha Bee, who branded him “America’s Dad.” 

Former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who now runs a homeless advocacy organization, praised Cuomo for “doing an outstanding job” on the coronavirus response. “He has been the model,” she added, pointedly declining to criticize de Blasio, against whom she unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2013.

There has even been some longing for former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, despite his disastrous turn as Trump’s personal attorney. “Giuliani seemed to know instinctively that what the public craved during a crisis was humanity, humility and community,” wrote Jennifer Senior of the New York Times in a recent column

Giuliani “appealed to our better angels,” Senior wrote.

Speaking to Yahoo News, Giuliani blasted de Blasio’s performance and praised Cuomo effusively, lamenting that City Hall was playing second fiddle to Albany.

New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and firefighter Michael Crowell near the site of the World Trade Center in 2001. (John Marshall Mantel/Pool/Reuters)

“It's inconceivable to me that the state of New York would have taken over when I was the mayor,” he said. He was especially critical of de Blasio musing about a citywide lockdown order without first working out all the details with Cuomo.

Last week, de Blasio told New Yorkers to expect a shelter-in-place order, apparently at the urging of his wife, who has no emergency management experience and was recently accused of mismanaging a $1 billion mental health effort.

Cuomo quickly rejected that idea, only to later issue an order of his own called New York State on PAUSE. De Blasio was not at the podium with him, despite the fact that two-thirds of the state’s population is concentrated in the five boroughs.

“I see a terrible problem here with the governor and the mayor,” Giuliani said, speaking after de Blasio had speculated on the stay-in-place order but before the governor had issued the order of his own. “The mayor is frightening the hell out of people about locking them in their houses, and the governor says he’s not gonna do it. They gotta be on the same page.”

De Blasio answered Giuliani — whose most recent experience has been conducting a shadow foreign policy for Trump that led to impeachment charges — through City Hall spokesperson Olivia Lapeyrolerie. “Rudy Giuliani has not said a single credible thing in years,” and “these comments are no different,” Lapeyrolerie wrote in an email to Yahoo News.

Though he has seemingly become a progressive darling overnight, Cuomo struggled much like de Blasio to gain national prominence. And like the mayor, the governor has faced accusations of unethical behavior. But now he is being hailed as a hero by the very same people who, until the coronavirus epidemic, had largely ignored him. Even more surprisingly, he has been hailed by Trump (though that was tempered by strong criticism on Tuesday afternoon). 

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo at the Javits Convention Center in New York City on Tuesday. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Cuomo’s political skills were evident on Tuesday afternoon, as he criticized the lack of federal resources coming to New York without naming Trump directly. And he rejected the notion that the death of some, including the sick and elderly, was an unavoidable by-product of the outbreak.

“We are going to fight every way we can to save every life that we can, because that’s what I think it means to be an American,” he said.

Unlike the president and the mayor, Cuomo managed to offer an uplifting message — “Let’s learn to act as one nation” — while not downplaying the severity of the situation, in particular regarding the lack of ventilators in hospitals across New York state. He described the coronavirus as a “bullet train” heading toward New York while warning Americans outside his state that they too would encounter the sickness soon enough. 

Quotes from Cuomo quickly spread on cable news and social media. A little later, Vice President Pence announced that 4,000 ventilators were on their way to New York.

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